NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennesseans determined to be using public records requests as a form of harassment could be banned from filing them for one year under a new bill that would allow courts to punish people for making too many inquiries.
The move has alarmed open government advocates worried about the potentially chilling effects the bill might have, while also causing tension among supporters who feel queasy about limiting a person’s right to public records.
Under the proposal — introduced just this week — harassment would be defined as person who makes three or more public records requests in a year where:
— The requester submitted each inquiry in a threatening or abusive manner.
— The requester’s conduct was abusive or intimidating during each request.
— All three requests were not made in “good faith or for any legitimate purpose.”
A public agency would then have to ask a court to ban the person from making records requests, and if successful, that person could not make a request for a year unless they prove to a court any future inquiry over that 12-month time does not constitute harassment. Anyone found guilty could only file a public records request during that one year ban with permission from a judge.
“We put a very high bar on this. I do not want any city or public entity abusing this opportunity to simply block someone from getting a public record,” said House Majority Leader William Lamberth, the proposal’s co-sponsor.
The Republican leader added he believes the bill would be rarely used if approved by the Legislature and Gov. Bill Lee.
“It’s not just harassment. It’s really about when someone egregiously abuses the public records process as a weapon against one of our public entities,” Lamberth said.
Local and state agencies have long spoken out against a handful of individuals who flood their inboxes with records requests, clogging up the system and wasting limited resources. Sometimes, the response has been slapping heavier fees onto intricate requests or applying lengthy time extensions until the records requests can be fulfilled.
The challenge particularly has come to a head in Gallatin — a city just north of Nashville — where officials say they’ve been bogged down by one particular individual known for making extraordinary public records requests for the past several years.
“It feels weird to me, I’m all about fulfilling public records requests but we’ve had a serious issue for a very long time. We need some relief,” said Gallatin Mayor Paige Brown, a former journalist, who reached out to Lamberth about finding a possible solution.
Last year, the city received more than 400 public records requests but 130 of those came from just one private citizen. According to Brown and other city officials, the man frequently asks to view hours of police body and dash camera footage, as well as often accuses officials of withholding information while filing multiple lawsuits against the city.
And because this person’s request is just to view — not for copies of the records — the city is prohibited from charging him for the hours of work needed to vet law enforcement records.
Brown said the city spent at least 80 hours on one request only for the man to come in and spend just three minutes looking through the records.
However, when asked if she believed Lamberth’s bill was the appropriate response to one problematic person, Brown said she had some concerns.
“Yes, the bill would help. But I can’t tell you if it’s appropriate because we’re all having trepidations about limiting public access to public records,” she said. “I just think our current system isn’t fair to the taxpayer.”
Brown added that she was more inclined to possibly charge people to view copies of public records, but added even that option caused heartburn for her because she doesn’t believe public entities should put up barriers to accessing their government.
The bill has also raised concerns among open government advocates, who warn even with the strict harassment definition in the bill, public agencies could use the measure to scare people from snooping into government business out of fear of being penalized.
“I think it would be very easy in some tense situations for a government official to claim they were intimidated by a citizen or journalist, file a lawsuit against the citizen, forcing that person to hire an attorney to defend themselves,” said Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.
The proposal is still in the early stages of making its way through the Tennessee Legislature, it’s unclear how the new Republican governor will weigh in.
Lee has promised to make government more transparent since taking over the office earlier this year, but held off from saying if he supported the bill when asked by The Associated Press on Thursday.